Shake Milton looks to improve and increase his role on the 76ers this season. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

The Sixers faced the Spurs on Monday night, playing their second of eight seeding games before the playoffs begin. Philly was looking to rebound from a frustrating loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night.

Before we dive into what happened in this game, some notes:

Contextual Notes

Three Sixers were unavailable for the game:

The Spurs were without guard Marco Belinelli (left foot sprain), Bryn Forbes (right quad tightness), and Trey Lyles (appendectomy). Those absences were in addition to all-star forward LaMarcus Aldridge (right shoulder), who is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery during the suspension.

Ron Brooks, the world’s first double amputee to earn Eagle Scout honors, pre-recorded the national anthem for the affair. It was good to know that quarantine hadn’t completely sucked the feeling out of my soul, as I got chills hearing his powerful bellows. It was certainly a welcomed hint of normalcy, and something that painted a grin on Philly’s face.

Shake Milton, undoubtedly feeling pressure after a putrid game against the Pacers, responded with an impressive performance. The second-year guard contributed 16 points (6 of 9 shooting), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and just 1 turnover in 25 minutes played.

Ben Simmons fouled out in 25 minutes. He added 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists before being disqualified.

Fourth quarter defense is becoming a concern for the Sixers, as they’ve allowed their last two opponents–both of whom were under-manned–to score at least 40 points in the final frame. 

Following a 21-turnover slop fest on Saturday, the Sixers exhibited significant improvement on the ball security front. They turned the rock over just 13 times on Monday night.

First Quarter

Halfway through the opening period, San Antonio had attempted fourteen field goals; only one was a triple. DeMar DeRozan was credited with seven field goal attempts up to that point. Philly was allowing the Spurs to puncture the heart of the perimeter and get to the mid-range area–a well-known comfort zone for the Spurs–and the paint. Throughout the first half of the quarter, the defensive intensity remained largely unimpressive, and the team had seemingly abandoned one half of its core defensive philosophy (perturbing opponents at the rim). The Sixers appeared to be playing down to an opponent, once again.

Offensively, the Sixers weren’t aggressive in establishing Embiid deep in the paint. Gregg Popovich was forced to remove Jakob Poeltl early in the game due to foul trouble, and San Antonio responded with a small-ball lineup similar to what the Pacers deployed on Saturday. Coach Brett Brown emphasized the importance of deep paint catches prior to Saturday night’s loss to Indiana, so a seeming lack of emphasis on going to Embiid on the block repeatedly was questionable, at best.

Josh Richardson provided the Sixers with a pivotal spark on the offensive end of the floor. Richardson, who struggled to find an offensive rhythm throughout the three scrimmages and Saturday’s loss to the Pacers. Richardson supplied 10 points in the first quarter, connecting on a pair of triples to shatter the proverbial lid covering the Sixers’ rim. Al Horford and Furkan Korkmaz felt the pressure lifted, connecting on one triple a piece. Despite a lackluster defensive effort in the former portion of the first course, an inspired and more fluid Sixer offense asserted itself to give the team a three-point cushion heading into the second quarter.

Second Quarter

Philly continued its strong shooting in the second quarter, adding deep balls from Harris and Burks and re-focusing on exploiting San Antonio’s smaller lineups with looks around the rim. 

Brett Brown eased his drop coverage pick-and-roll defense a bit, reducing the amount of space available to ball-handlers. That stunted and discouraged the likes of DeMar DeRozan and other attacking guards deployed by the Spurs. Nonetheless, the Sixers committed five turnovers in the quarter, and San Antonio capitalized on exemplary ball movement. DeRozan and Rudy Gay combined for 32 points in the first half, and Philly led by four heading into intermission.

Going into halftime, the Sixers had not given up at least 30 points in three consecutive quarters:

 

Third Quarter

Ben Simmons, who had a rather uninspiring first half on both sides of the ball, committed his fourth foul in the first twenty seconds of the second half, and Brown elected Horford as his replacement. 

While many would expect the Sixers to crumble without the lead foot pushing their pedal through the floor in transition, the Sixers showed cohesion and put a run together. Embiid was a significant factor in the group’s finding an offensive flow, as he showed a tremendous proficiency in reading double-teams in the post and finding open teammates quickly. 

The Spurs, who were under-manned, began to show effects of deploying a large dosage of bench players. Shots stopped falling, and the Sixers were able to take advantage on live-ball opportunities. A combination of bully ball, improved reads on double-teams, and perimeter shooting saw the Sixers build a double-digit lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Fourth Quarter

Even with Simmons hampered with foul trouble, the Sixers were able to stabilize their offense with Joel Embiid early in the final period. Embiid was the focal point in the low post, and Poeltl, who was also battling foul trouble, was completely outmatched. 

As we’ve seen across the sport, especially over the last several seasons, it’s a game of runs. The Spurs were down, but not out. While Tobias Harris made a handful of baskets down the stretch, the San Antonio defense collapsed on the Sixers’ interior offense, creating chaos in the paint. Turnovers compounded, and DeRozan feasted on the dropped big in the pick-and-roll. A 14-point lead turned into a 4-point deficit with 1:41 remaining.

After trading baskets down the stretch, the Sixers found themselves with the ball down a bucket. Milton knocked down a triple to take the lead with 6 seconds left. DeRozan had a look out of a hammer play on the inbound pass, but deferred to a diving Poeltl. San Antonio turned the ball over amidst the ensuing chaos. Embiid iced the victory, intentionally missing the back-end of a pair of free throws with less than one second left.

The Sixers have the day off tomorrow before taking on the Wizards at 4 PM on Wednesday.